San Diego’s remarkable running back scored four times and reached 100 touchdowns faster than any player in NFL history Sunday night, leading the Chargers past the Denver Broncos 35-27 in a showdown for first place in the AFC West.
The Chargers (8-2) became the first NFL team to win back-to-back games after trailing by 17 or more points, and the first club to win four straight when allowing at least 24 points in each game.
With San Diego trailing 24-7, it certainly appeared the Broncos (7-3) had taken Tomlinson out of the mix for the sixth straight time in Denver, where he had averaged just 53 yards rushing in five straight losses.
But these Chargers are becoming the masters of the comeback.
“Resilient bunch of guys,” Tomlinson said. “Our team, we’re never out of it, and I think this is a very special team because no matter what happens, no matter how much we’re down, we’re never out of the football game.”
Thanks to Tomlinson, who finally found himself relevant in the Mile High City.
“I feel like Steve Young in a way when he said, ‘Get the monkey off my back,”’ Tomlinson said. “This is not the Super Bowl, but it’s a huge burden that has been lifted off me. In five years I hadn’t won in Denver. Hadn’t had much success here, either. It feels good.”
Tomlinson has scored an NFL-record 19 touchdowns in his last six games and reached 100 TDs in his 89th game, four fewer than it took Hall of Famer Jim Brown and Emmitt Smith. He has 102 TDs and topped 1,000 yards rushing for the sixth straight season.
“He’s unbelievable,” Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers said. “He’s the best in the business. He’s unbelievable with it under his arm, he’s unbelievable as we’ve seen on the pass, he’s unbelievable blocking. He brings it on every play. He’s the ultimate weapon, and you throw the guys we’ve got around him and we feel like we can score whatever we need on any given week.”
As usual, Tomlinson deflected the praise as easily as he does tacklers.
“It’s a phenomenal thing. But I have a lot of guys to thank,” Tomlinson said. “Our offensive line has played great this season. Lorenzo Neal is the best at blocking, so it’s a whole team effort. I can’t take all the credit.”
After Tomlinson scored his first three TDs, Rivers found Vincent Jackson in the back of the end zone to give San Diego a 28-27 lead with 6:45 left, erasing the final remnants of Denver’s big lead.
The Chargers iced it when cornerback Drayton Florence picked off Jake Plummer’s pass deep in Broncos’ territory with three minutes left, leading to Tomlinson’s fourth score, a 1-yard touchdown run with 1:14 left.
However, the Chargers made things interesting, allowing the Broncos to drive from their 3 to the Chargers 32 thanks to a personal foul on defensive end Igor Olshansky, who was ejected for punching center Tom Nalen. The Broncos’ hopes for overtime ended when Plummer was sacked by Shaun Phillips and time ran out.
Tomlinson rushed 20 times for 105 yards and caught three passes for 74 more.
“Best running back ever, next to Jim Brown,” Denver defensive lineman Gerard Warren said.
Having erased two 21-point deficits a week earlier at Cincinnati, the Chargers found themselves trailing 24-7 early in the third quarter after Darrent Williams’ 31-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“I mean, you’ve got to feel like you’re going to win the game when you’re up 24-7,” Williams said.
Actually, the Broncos were right where the Chargers wanted them.
“We had already done it (at Cincinnati), so there was no doubt in our minds we could do it,” Rivers said.
Tomlinson, who scored on a 3-yard run in the first quarter, added a 3-yard TD run in the third to get to the century mark and cut the Chargers’ deficit to 24-14. He didn’t have a big celebration, choosing instead to tuck the ball in his left arm and walk to the Chargers bench.
After Denver went three-and-out, Tomlinson jogged back out and caught a 51-yard screen pass for a touchdown to cut the Broncos’ lead to 24-21 with 3:51 left in the third quarter.
Jason Elam’s field goal gave Denver a 27-21 cushion with 11 minutes left.
The Broncos took a 14-7 lead into the locker room on Mike Bell’s two 3-yard TD runs, and Cecil Sapp returned the second-half kickoff 53 yards, setting up Elam’s 42-yard field goal. Three plays later, Williams scored to make it 24-7.
Tomlinson quickly quieted the rocking stadium.
“Every time he touches the ball you just hold your breath to see what he’s going to do,” Neal said.
Williams said field judge Eddy Powers said something derogatory to him before he responded and got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after Tomlinson’s final TD. … The Chargers have scored 70 second-half points the last two weeks and just 14 first-half points.